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Boston Globe (22/Dec/1997) - Stewart's own wonderful life



Stewart's own wonderful life

There's no more appealing Hollywood presence than Jimmy Stewart -- an actor who was simultaneously a chameleon and irreducibly himself. Biographers, friends, and colleagues appearing in "Jimmy Stewart: His Wonderful Life," an Arts & Entertainment channel offering, agree that the person and persona were almost indistinguishable. The principled decency and sweetness of Stewart's screen characters flowed directly from the man.

The informative hourlong program airs tonight at 8 as part of A&E's Biography series. And what it lacks in polish is amply compensated by Stewart's own style and charm.

His life story is as American as the Fourth of July. Born in Indiana, Pa., in 1908, his was an advantaged middle-class family: Dad was a well-liked hardware entrepreneur, Mom a civic pillar of the small town. Jimmy turned to acting late, and by chance, after finishing college at Princeton.

His first stage work was on Cape Cod, with the University Players in Falmouth, where Stewart met his lifelong buddy Henry Fonda before both moved to New York and Broadway. There, Fonda struggled while Stewart readily prospered, as he always seemed to do so effortlessly, throughout his prolific career.

While "His Wonderful Life" isn't especially analytical, its effect is surprisingly potent, fueled as it is by Stewart's deceptively rich and varied talents and a nature so decent and stainless that it would be impossible to believe if it weren't true. "His Wonderful Life" simply presents some facts of Stewart's private and professional life, shows several too-short clips of his films, and recounts familiar but revealing, and often affecting, anecdotes.

Along with Fonda, he was one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors when he started working for MGM in the 1930s. But despite dating some of Tinseltown's loveliest starlets, all Stewart revealed about his affairs was: "These women were great dancers, and I loved to dance."

His first film after his war service was "It's a Wonderful Life," released in 1946, followed by several crackerjack Westerns and his challenging and often great screen performances for Alfred Hitchcock. There were scores of other films, most of them distinguished by the actor's instant credibility, light touch, and indelible humanity.

Stewart's long and mostly happy life, crowned by a loving 44-year marriage, was not without its torments, notably the death of a stepson in combat in Vietnam, and the loss of his closest friend, Fonda, who died in 1982.

Henry's son, Peter, reminisces on camera about how Stewart and his father spent hours building model airplanes and kites, collaborating in silent fellowship in their boyish pursuit. It's a wonderful image.

When Stewart died in July at age 89, to many of us who knew him only through his performances, it still felt like a personal loss. Such is the power of the movies, but even more so of this rare figure whose wonderful life and gifts "His Wonderful Life" brings readily to mind.

Although the program never says so precisely, it reminds us of how utterly natural and fully present Stewart almost always was on screen -- how he obscured the toil and method behind his appealingly accessible art.